Krabi-Krabong (sword, staff) is a weapon system that originates from Thailand’s ancient past when war and conflict were factors in forging pre-modern Southeast Asia.
From the early part of the second millennium C.E. various city-states within South East Asia sought to expand their territory and hegemony over the region. The Thai state of Ayuthaya (near modern day Bangkok) sacked the Khmer city-state of Angkor (modern day Cambodia) in 1431 and conquered various tracts of the Khmer Empire – subsequently vying for it with the Vietnamese. The Thais fought major wars whilst defending their seat of power in Ayuthaya against Burmese forces in 1557, and in1767 when they succumbed to the latter. Having later consolidated their position in Bangkok, the Thais once again asserted themselves. With the Burmese repelled, the neighbouring Lao states were brought under their administration following several brief conflicts.
Throughout these eras, with expansionism, and the assertion of power and control via military means increasing sharply, the taking up of arms became a significant feature for the Thai people - whose realm constituted a patchwork of various Thai and non-Thai city-states, and vassals. To enhance the ability to fight in battle, regular soldiers, and auxiliary troops drawn from the wider Thai population alike honed their martial skills via Krabi-Krabong - drilled training with swords, staffs, pikes, clubs, shields etc.
Although outwardly a weapon’s system, the martial art of Krabi-Krabong also emphasized the ability of using one’s limbs in conjunction with hand-held weapons - to block an opponent’s strike with one’s sword, or staff whilst countering with a front push kick, angle kick, or knee strike to the adversary’s torso or legs. Whilst facing adversaries the arms and hands were held in a defensive boxing-like posture to guard one’s own torso, in particular the vulnerable chest and heart. Moreover, if one was de-armed in the ensuing melee, resorting to, and capably fighting empty handed was a necessity.
Thus unarmed combat training aspects of Krabi-Krabong were a significant feature within the system. Still utilising the primary stance for holding weapons and defending the torso, strikes using the limbs, locks, clinches, chokes, and takedowns became just as relevant in the survival stakes of war. As was the nature, these emphasized solid, clinical strikes that rendered the opponent debilitated, or dead. Eventually, over time, Krabi-Krabong’s deadly empty hand techniques were assumed by those wishing to demonstrate their fighting prowess in an agreed, competitive one-on-one scenario. It was from this juncture that the earliest forms of Muay Thai (Thai boxing) came into being.
Muay Boran/Muay Kard Chuerk
Muay Boran (ancient boxing), and Muay Kard Chuerk (bound rope boxing) are generic terms used today for the empty hand one-on-one fighting techniques that emerged, and evolved from Krabi-Krabong, to become the blue print and predecessor of the modern Muay Thai ring sport.
It became fashionable amongst Thais martially trained and skilled for combat with the enemy, to pit their unarmed skills against one-another in times of relative peace. This spectacle attracted royal interest and patronage. Thus the early styles of Muay Thai rose with practitioners fighting one-on-one within a drawn out ring on the ground, or a courtyard. Initially fights continued until knock out, submission, or in some cases when fatality ensued though later, crude timing methods were introduced. With the Thai people being spread over a wide geographic area, empty hand techniques became nuanced, and stylised with regional variety, and probably influenced by other neighbouring martial arts. At some point the binding of the hands with materials such as rope, or twine became de rigueur.
Regional styles to emerge were those for example from or centred on Korat (Northeast Thailand), Bangkok, and Chaiya (Southern Thailand). Each style could be recognized and classified by the posture of the boxer, the moves executed, and the manner in which the hands were bound. For example, boxers of the Korat branch adopting a tall rangy stance would bind the rope from the hand up to the elbow for added protection against strong kicks. Exponents of Chaiya by contrast adopting a strong, low stance would leave the forearms unbound allowing for the use of fluid, devastating elbow strikes, and locks using the arms.
Modern Muay Thai
During the early 20th century, Thailand - now for the most part a consolidated nation - went through a period of modernization in an attempt to keep pace with the western world. Thai citizens were encouraged to behave socially like their western counterparts, and team sports quintessentially European in origin such as football (soccer) were promoted. Essentially many traditional Thai customs and traditions were dissuaded, or became diluted. The traditional art of Muay Thai was prone to these effects.
Cultural sensitivity fuelled by Thailand’s preoccupation to the West’s perception of it was influential in the dramatic overhaul in Muay Thai which the authorities feared would be viewed as too brutal and barbaric by outsiders. A western style roped ring, three-minute rounds, and regulations were introduced. Dramatically, boxing gloves became statutory. From there on certain moves and strikes of the boran/kard chuerk era were rendered redundant, and the variation and nuance of regional styles diminished as Muay Thai became a modernised, uniform ring sport.
Muay Thai became professionalized, and assured of its new image asserted itself as Thailand’s national sport. Rachadamnoen Stadium was opened in 1945 as Thailand’s first purpose-built national boxing stadium. Lumpini Stadium followed suit in 1956. Today both stadiums in Bangkok serve as the Meccas of Thai Boxing, with ranking, and championship bouts held nightly. Smaller Bangkok stadiums and purpose built arenas host an array of corporate sponsored televised bouts and competitions of which King’s cup an annual open air event held in front of the Royal Palace to celebrate the King’s birthday – is the highlight. Yet village fete bouts and provincial stadiums provide entertainment to locals, and a platform for boys and young men seeking a way out of poverty to launch their boxing careers and join the thousands of registered professional fighters in Thailand.
Today, Thailand promotes Muay Thai under the banner: Silipa Muay Thai: morodok Thai, morodok lork – The Art of Thai Boxing; Thai heritage, world heritage. Fitting as not only has the historical martial art been transmitted and received amongst the Thai themselves for generations, but now to, and around the rest of the globe.